While there’s nothing magical about January 1st, every new year still brings a sense of hope, motivation, inspiration, and a fresh start.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Those of us who grew up in an atmosphere of blaming, shaming, humiliating, intimidating, manipulating, mocking, sarcasm, or lying, felt confused, socially awkward, “less than,” and probably not “good enough.” Growing up in a family with unhealthy dynamics meant that we repeatedly and consistently got the message that everyone else’s needs were more important than our own.
When we carry these thoughts or beliefs into adulthood, we easily become action-takers and “fixers,” people-pleasers who attempt to control outcomes and solve other people’s problems. We take responsibilities that aren’t ours, and we may get a lot of satisfaction from acquiring these “projects”—always helping, forever putting our own needs, wants, and to-do’s last, if at all. We feel unloved and resentful, and we don’t understand why.
Growing up in an oppressive environment meant we couldn’t freely express our feelings or ask questions because no one was interested in them, or it didn’t feel safe to do so. As adults, it is hard for us to talk about personal things or have difficult discussions, and we avoid conflict at all costs.
If we carry the unconscious core belief that we’re somehow fundamentally flawed or undeserving of kindness and love, we may willingly but unintentionally become the dumping ground for others’ emotional garbage. Though we don’t like it, we might unconsciously believe that we don’t deserve anything better than the kind of treatment we endured as kids.
Growing up in a toxic or neglectful environment can create problems that can last a lifetime.
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”
—Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
THE IMPORTANCE OF VALIDATION
Validation is the act of recognizing or affirming someone’s feelings or thoughts as being sound or worthwhile. The act of validating is an essential aspect of parenting because it opens the door to safe communication. Feeling heard and understood allows people to trust, which is a cornerstone of every relationship.
A validating mother listens to what her child is saying. She understands that her child has their own emotions and thoughts, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with them. Validation is a nonjudgmental and supportive action that requires empathy.
When a child falls and skins her knee, a validating mother will understand that the crying child is in pain and requires some form of caretaking or soothing to feel better. The remedy could simply be a verbal expression of empathy and understanding, (acknowledging that the child is hurting), or hugging and kissing her, or applying antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid. The point is that this child knows she’s been heard, understood, cared for, and loved. She feels worthy of her mom’s time and effort and believes she’s valued. This is validation. The mother may not think the injury is as severe as the child may believe, but she doesn’t judge. She accepts how the child feels; she doesn’t minimize or negate her child’s feelings.
A validating mother would say something like, “Wow! You’re really crying hard! Your knee must hurt a lot. Let’s see if I can make you feel better.”
In 2016, an observational study was done to see if a relationship existed between a mother’s emotional validation and the degree of awareness her child has about their own emotions. They found that the mother’s degree of emotional validation and invalidation were accurate predictors of the child’s perception of their own emotional state. In other words, a child’s ability to recognize their own emotions comes from being validated by their mother first. (Lambie and Lindberg 2016).
If our mother doesn’t “see us” and validate us as individuals who have thoughts, feelings, and goals of our own, we may start thinking, feeling, or believing that we don’t matter. If we establish this mindset as children, that we’re not good enough, or that it’s OK to be mistreated or unloved, or ignored, then we don’t learn how to validate ourselves. We don’t know how to comfortably acknowledge our positive characteristics or our personal or professional accomplishments, either.
Of course, we may receive validation from other people besides our mothers. Caring adults, older siblings, or a father can affirm and support us too. But being approved of and understood by our mother is a unique and vital experience.
Because validation requires empathy, narcissists will not be able to perform this responsibility.
As I mentioned before, if we haven’t experienced what it’s like to be treated as unique beings who matter, we may form the belief that others’ needs are more important than our own. This is important to note because a belief is created when our feelings become connected with our thoughts (Lamia 2012).
Without examining our original childhood beliefs, we may simply bring them along with us into adulthood, even though they’re no longer relevant, are self-limiting, and are untrue.
When I was four years old, I was alone outside, barefoot, and stubbed my bare big toe; it bled, and my little self knew it was the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I was appalled by the hanging flap of skin and I was understandably frightened.
On this particular day, in response to my limping into the house wailing and interrupting her TV show, my mother angrily grabbed my forearm and hauled me into the bathroom. She proceeded to run water over my foot, adding a whole new dimension of unexpected stinging pain. The entire time, she furiously and loudly berated and humiliated me for running (I wasn’t running), “not looking where you’re going,” and for not knowing “how to walk without hurting myself.” I’d dared to lack the focus and navigational skill required and had burdened her with my injury.
There was no kiss, no hug, no feeling of being understood or valued, cared for, or even loved. There was no Band-Aid. Just continuous berating and humiliating, which ended with an admonishment to be more careful next time and not let it happen again. I was sent back outside, still not knowing what I had done wrong and trying to figure it out, feeling ashamed of myself and embarrassed by my inability to negotiate the walkway safely. I rejected others’ empathy or sympathy for my injury and redirected their attention to anything other than myself. I didn’t feel worthy of anyone’s concern or kindness.
To this day, remembering this event confounds me. Over the years, I’ve explained it in various ways. But the explanation that rings most true is that this must have been a narcissistic injury for my mother. A narcissistic injury is anything that threatens the ‘false self.’ Her rage at me for falling made no sense, and she flipped the scenario to make herself the victim: because of me, she had to get off her chair, miss a portion of her TV show (that was the time before VCRs and DVRs,) and treat my wound. She was angry because I “should have known better” than to cause her this inconvenience.
When I became a mother, I was incredibly aware that I wanted to raise my children very differently than I was. I knew that I sorely lacked healthy parenting skills and parent role models. I wanted to learn how to parent lovingly and responsibly. I needed to learn proper parenting techniques, and I tried to find healthy mother role models to imitate. I was on the lookout for them everywhere I went.
I remember sitting on my porch when my neighbor’s young child fell and hurt herself. The child’s mother ran over and scooped her up, sat her on a step, and examined her bleeding knee. I watched them very carefully. I saw the mother gently blow on the knee, (I had never seen this done before, and thought it probably minimized the sting.) I later learned from the mom that she applied antiseptic, administered a chewable painkiller, and applied a cheerful Band-Aid. The little girl was outside playing again in a matter of minutes. That mom was a validating mother. She affirmed her child in a kind and loving manner, and that was the kind of mother I wanted to be.
Here’s my point: If we don’t learn that we’re unique people who matter simply because we exist, and if we don’t know how to identify our emotions because we’ve never learned how we’re at risk of developing unhealthy coping mechanisms. We may have a hard time accepting when someone likes or tries to befriend us, and we question why they would want to. If someone does something kind for us, we may assume it’s a form of manipulation, or we may be confused by it. When our emotional, psychological, or physical needs go unmet, we often find other ways (possibly harmful or maladaptive) to get by.
When we grow up in an oppressive or toxic environment, we don’t know that there are ways to protect ourselves from mistreatment. We may grow into adults who unconsciously broadcast the message that we exist to be of service to others and that it doesn’t matter how they treat us. As adults, we may accept disrespect, unfair or unkind treatment, and even physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.
If we haven’t seen healthy boundaries modeled, then we don’t know what a healthy boundary looks like or how to create one, so we become hypervigilant instead. This means that a brain structure called the amygdala stores threatening behavior patterns in our memory, causing our focus becomes external. So we focus on others’ behavior and moods, continually alert and ready for anything. This is the fight-flight-freeze response which contributes heavily to C-PTSD, an anxiety disorder caused by trauma.
This preoccupation with focusing on others also contributes to becoming codependent.
When we have low self-worth, it’s natural to feel that we’re not good enough to ask for what we want or need. Instead, we learn to use subtle forms of manipulation to get our needs met. This is a learned survival skill. It developed out of necessity. In order for us to feel emotionally or physically safe, it feels necessary to control as much of our environment as we can in an attempt to avoid nasty surprises. Feeling like we’re in control makes us feel safe. We begin managing aspects of others’ lives, and may even believe that we’re emotionally stronger, more capable, and better at it than they are. When we spend more time taking care of or focusing on others, or when we try to control the outcomes of others’ choices or behavior, we become codependent.
Codependency develops as a self-protective response. It’s a way of coping with a stressful or unhealthy, traumatic, or abusive environment and can be learned by watching and imitating other codependents too. It’s a learned behavior that can be passed down through generations.
Codependents willingly play by others’ “rules,” losing their own identity. It affects a person’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying adult relationships.
If we’re codependent, we most likely believe that we know what’s best for other people and their lives, and we think we know how to fix their problems. We want them to follow our unsolicited advice and are often hurt or angered when they don’t.
To a codependent, helping and fixing other people or their problems feels good. They feel needed and are highly attracted to people who could use their help. Codependents enjoy offering suggestions and advice even though they haven’t been asked for them. If we’re codependent, we feel responsible for people and issues that aren’t our responsibility, and if we don’t attempt to help, fix, or control, we often feel guilty or ashamed. It feels wrong not to jump in, take charge, or aid others who seem to be struggling, even though they haven’t reached out for assistance. We seem to have no choice but to take responsibilities that aren’t ours. We just feel that somehow, it’s our job to take action, take over, and fix.
If we’re codependent, we most likely don’t have boundaries. We disclose almost everything we think and do and assume we won’t be believed. We overexplain our choices because if we’ve not enjoyed our mother’s validation (or if we’ve been continually invalidated), we still crave to be heard, understood, and affirmed. We’ll continuously seek affirmation outside of ourselves to feel “good enough” or that we matter. This is called “external validation,” and codependents seek external validation and affirmation any way they can get it. It’s often described as being needy, “clingy,” or insecure.
Codependents continually look for someone to please. We feel the need to make excuses for others’ mistreatment of us or their poor behavior in general. We explain to ourselves why they’re abusing us and why it’s OK for them to do so. We often take the blame. We minimize and deny the pain they cause us. Codependents are known for their discomfort with saying “no.”
Healthy coping mechanisms, on the other hand, help us to make sense of confusing or threatening life experiences and to respond appropriately in wholesome ways. You’ve heard the saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? Well, that’s a coping skill: taking something negative and turning it into a positive. In reality, nothing has changed. Life has still given us lemons, but instead of getting angry, depressed, or feeling slighted or misunderstood, we choose to look at it another way. When we use healthy coping, we’re able to reframe negative events in a way that feels better.
Looking at our past can be difficult for many reasons. First of all, it hurts. Secondly, we may think it’s pointless because it happened so long ago. But if you’re affected by or struggling with self-esteem, self-confidence, lack of boundaries, anger, or another issue, it could be worthwhile to revisit the past with a therapist, trauma counselor, or other mental health professional. See where and when these issues started and make a treatment plan to resolve them. The second step is doing that work to heal and move forward. The key is getting started.
TOOLS FOR MOVING FORWARD
Learn about codependency and unhealthy survival skills learned in childhood
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Understand Narcissism Awareness Grief
Let go of what you can’t control by using positive-detachment
Learn to recognize the Cycle of Abuse
Set some boundaries
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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